The Guilford County Animal Shelter fired eight employees this week in a mass layoff of former United Animal Coalition (UAC) workers.
Some of those former employees said the county had this move planned all along and said the fired shelter workers were laid off as part of an effort to clear out long-term shelter staff who had any association with the UAC and who have the ear of Guilford County commissioners and relationships with members of the Guilford County Animal Services Advisory Board. They also said administrators liked staff who did not make waves.
Many volunteers who work with the shelter and those who work in the local animal rescue community were upset about firings. They said some of those fired did an excellent job and there was no reason for the move.
Though county officials said repeatedly when asked about the firings at the shelter that this was a personnel issue and they therefore could not discuss the details, they did say there was no nefarious plot to get rid of all former UAC workers – nor, they say, was there a plan to silence shelter staff complaints by firing those with connections to Guilford County commissioners or members of the advisory board.
The eight workers were fired on Tuesday, Feb. 28 and Wednesday, March 1. On Tuesday, five workers were told to report to a meeting with Guilford County human resources staff and those five were notified in individual meetings of their terminations. Three others were also fired at other times.
All Guilford County officials contacted refused to comment on the reason for the firings, but some of those fired maintain that the county had planned to fire all the UAC workers for the past year, despite what they said was in some cases exceptional work performance.
The UAC is the nonprofit that Guilford County hired to run the animal shelter for almost two decades before a giant animal neglect and mistreatment scandal in August 2015 led to the county taking over control of the shelter and forming the new Animal Services Department now headed up by Drew Brinkley.
Guilford County Deputy Manager Clarence Grier is the top county official assigned with overseeing the county’s animal services operations. One fired employee said that Brinkley’s signature was on the dismissal notice.
Wolfgang Planz, a worker in charge of facility cleanliness, had been with the shelter 11 years before being fired Tuesday. He said he and the others did not see it coming. Planz said he was a diligent worker who cared a great deal about the animals. He said that Guilford County clearly all along wanted to keep the UAC workers on until they had a plan in place to replace them. He said that’s why the county made an administrative move one year ago that technically fired the former shelter workers and rehired them – with a one-year probationary period allowing the county to fire them without cause before that term expired.
Planz said the county had ulterior motives for the firings that had nothing to do with the employees’ performance, which is why, he said, the county had established that year probationary period.
“They have very cleverly masked the whole incident,” Planz said, “and made sure they covered everything legally. It is clear that they intended from the first day to use the former staff of the UAC to get going and then fire them. The reason is that, in my 11 years there, I established connections; and the others did too. The reason they fired us is that want to preserve secrecy; they don’t want people telling what is going on.”
Planz said that some of the UAC workers who were let go, including himself, had good relationships with rescue groups and advisory board members and others who are vocal about shelter activities.
He said, by way of illustration, during the recent snowstorm, he came in for work and was alarmed no one was there to look after the animals.
“I was the only one who came in,” he said.
He contacted coworkers and volunteers to come out and help and, in that email chain, Commissioner Hank Henning and Commissioner Jeff Phillips got notice of the need and came down to the shelter to help out.
Planz said that event exposed the lack of an inclement weather policy at the shelter and displayed how management had dropped the ball that day. Volunteers including the two commissioners helped feed the animals and move them to warm spots at the shelter, he said. Soon after, the shelter got an inclement weather policy.
“At that time, they did not have a policy,” he said. “The county commissioners made them create one.”
Planz also said that those overseeing the shelter aren’t trying to hide anything like animal cruelty or mistreatment – but that they don’t want the advisory board and the commissioners involved in the process because that can keep shelter administrators from making the decisions they want to make.
“They want to operate in secrecy – they don’t want the public to look behind closed doors,” Planz said.
He added that there was no job performance issue that led to his firing. He said he truly cared about the animals and started there as a volunteer before being hired.
“I don’t want to sound conceited, but I was good at my job,” he said. “I worked as hard as I can work. And I thought people would see that and recognize that effort.”
Planz also said the mass firing will lead to a huge hole in care for the animals. He said the animals have to have medicine and food, and the cages have to be cleaned, and they need to be taken care of in other ways as well.
“This leaves a major gap,” he said.
He added that it would be hard to get the animals the medical care they needed.
“They fired three out of seven vet techs,” he said.
The county also fired an intake worker, supervisors with roles in animal adoption and animal foster programs and others.
According to Guilford County Human Resources Director John Dean, there are 29 total positions at the animal shelter and currently there are 16 vacant positions.
Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad, who’s the chairman of Animal Services Advisory Board, said that there’s no truth to the fact that this is part of some subversive plan by the county to silence people or get rid of former UAC workers.
“If this was the plan all along, I had no indication of it,” Conrad said. “I certainly haven’t heard about it.”
He said instead that it’s simply a question of giving shelter administrators the staff they need to be successful.
“In sports, the coach needs to able to put the right team together,” Conrad said. “It happens in all organizational structures. It’s true in business and in government.”
Conrad said that sometimes even good players aren’t the right match for certain teams. It doesn’t mean they are bad players, just not the right fit.
“We can come up with any conspiracy theory we want,” he said, adding that the reality is that the decisions being made are done so with the animals’ well-being in mind.
Conrad said he truly cares about the animals and that’s why he is chairman of that Animal Services Advisory Board. He said after the giant scandal nearly two years ago, everyone overseeing the shelter is well aware of the need to get this right.
“We understand that we are under a microscope,” Conrad said.
He also said that he was aware these firings were coming and, when it became evident that the county was going to terminate these workers, other arrangements were made that would guarantee the shelter animals get the care they need. He said the county was going to use a temp agency, more members of Malachi House, which is very involved with the shelter, and the county is also reaching out to the animal welfare volunteer community.
“Are the animals going to go without?” he said. “Absolutely not. Absolutely not.”
Traci Souza was let go on Wednesday after the mass firings a day earlier.
“Today was heartbreaking,” she posted on her Facebook page after the six were fired. “I lost six amazing friends today that I won’t get to see everyday. They were a part of an amazing work family. These people and I share such an amazing passion for the work that we do. I can’t imagine being without [you] guys and I love every single one of you. Please pray for these amazing people who did nothing wrong but love/care and fight for the animals.”
Volunteers said that Souza’s work at the shelter was exceptional and some of them think her making the news public on social media may have played a role.
Souza said that she was not sure of the reason but she said that the people who were not fired where ones who for the most part tended to never question authority and who did not raise questions.
“The people left are the quiet ones,” she said.
Souza also said that the county may be trying to get rid of anyone associated with the 2015 scandal but what they might not realize is that it was workers at the shelter at that time who helped the animal mistreatment come to light by leaking information to the authorities and others.
A few hours after Souza was fired, she posted this on Facebook: “They say when you rescue animals you lose your mind but find your soul. Well I’m heartbroken today because my soul has been crushed. I loved my job with everything I had in me. And I am saddened to say that I was informed today ‘my services were no longer needed.’ I am deeply saddened by this devastating loss. But want to take a moment to thank every coworker, volunteer, and rescuer that I had the privilege of knowing. You guys mean more to me than you’ll ever know.”